Apr 7, 2007
Growers Turning To Federal H-2A Labor Program Despite Its Flaws

An increasing number of growers are turning to the federal foreign labor program to find workers. They’re not signing up because it’s a great program, however. They’re signing up because they’re desperate, said Craig Regelbrugge, co-chair of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform (ACIR).

Regelbrugge doesn’t have any hard data to back up his assertions, but he’s seen anecdotal evidence that a deteriorating labor situation has forced growers all across the country to turn to H-2A, the government’s temporary agricultural worker program.

“It’s the only safety net out there,” he said.

Unfortunately, it’s a pretty small net – with a lot of holes. H-2A has a number of flaws that limit its use, which might explain why it supplies only 2 percent of the farm labor force in the United States, according to Regelbrugge.

Meeting H-2A’s requirements can be complicated and expensive for growers – if they even qualify. Some farmers, like those in the dairy industry, are ineligible because their work is not considered seasonal or temporary, he said.

Those who do qualify have to meet several conditions, like providing housing for workers. Housing requires a significant financial investment on the part of employers, not to mention zoning laws and other regulatory hoops they have to jump through.

“If you can’t provide housing, you’re out of luck,” Regelbrugge said. “It’s a deal killer for a lot of people.”

Delays are another problem. H-2A’s processing system is so cumbersome that workers sometimes show up late – by weeks. The application process begins at least 45 days before the first date laborers are needed. Growers are required to look for U.S. workers first. If they can’t find U.S. workers after 15 days, they can be approved for H-2A certification. By the time visas are issued, however, 15 to 35 days might have gone by, making it extremely difficult to get workers on time, said John Young, another co-chair of ACIR and past director of the New England Apple Council, a nonprofit that helps New England growers find labor.

The council has been using H-2A workers for 25 years. The program’s housing, transportation and other requirements have become so expensive that growers are hiring workers for longer periods of time. Costs can be better recouped that way, Young said.

Hiring fewer laborers to work longer periods has changed the way some farms operate. Growers have ventured into other commodities to stretch their seasons, he said.

On New England farms, about 2,500 workers are hired through H-2A annually. At one point, the council was bringing in 4,000 per year, but the program’s costs brought the numbers down. The vast majority of the workers are Jamaicans, who’ve been coming to New England since 1943, Young said.

The Jamaicans are recruited and transported by the Florida East Coast Travel Service, a division of the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association. The service also recruits H-2A workers – mostly Mexicans – for Florida growers, said Walter Kates, director of labor relations for the association.

A significant number of Florida growers have been using H-2A recently, thanks to an immigration crackdown and large labor shortages last spring. State growers will probably bring in 3,000 workers this year, the first time they’ve brought in that many since the early ’90s, Kates said.

H-2A users are looking to Capitol Hill for their salvation. If Congress passes AgJOBS, an immigration reform bill focused on agriculture, it would correct many of the labor program’s flaws, Regelbrugge said.

AgJOBS’ H-2A reforms fall into three broad categories: streamlining the bureaucratic process, giving flexibility to housing and wage provisions and overhauling the legal environment to end the rash of litigation in the current program, he said.

“We’ve got a good package of reforms that will leave us with a workable program.”




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